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Ethical consumers push sustainable fish sales to record levels


December 15 2011 Lewis Smith


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MSC prawns are one of many ethical products available

Sustainable fish are among the fastest growing products on supermarket shelves despite the economic downturn, a report shows.

At a time when millions of consumers are tightening their belts shoppers have been increasingly willing to get spend their hard-earnt cash on green goods which have seen sales grow by 8.8 per cent in a year.

In the last year spending on ethical products rose from £43 billion to £46.8bn, an increase of 8.8 per cent and almost 250 per cent up from the £13.5bn spent in 1999.

Among foodstuffs, sustainable fish had the second largest increase in the UK with a 16.3 per cent rise from £178 milion in 2009 to £207 in 2010. In 1999 sales were negligible and the Marine Stewardship Council, now the gold standard of seafood eco-labelling, had only just been set up.

Further big rises are expected for this year’s figures, following Hugh Fearnley-Whittingstall’s Fish Fight campaign against discards.

James Simpson, of the MSC, said: “It’s great news for the oceans. In the MSC certified fisheries supported by UK shoppers and businesses, fish stocks are up.

“Despite the difficult trading conditions, it is heartening to see companies such as Sainsbury’s, Marks and Spencer, Princes and John West continuing and, in many cases, increasing their investment in MSC certified seafood as they continue to promote sustainable sourcing, adding value in a marketplace that is ever more competitive.”

Charles Clover, of the award-winning documentary The End of the Line which was released in 2009 and a founder of Fish2fork, said: “It’s wonderful to see sustainable fish sales have shot up. This is a welcome shot in the arm for our oceans.”

The scale of the growth of ethical products was attributed by the Co-op, in its Ethical Consumerism Report 2011, not just to growing awareness of ethical concerns among consumers but to the increasing recognition among businesses that they need to change their behaviour and act with greater social responsibility.

Barry Clavin, who helped compile the report, said one of the surprises was that even during the economic downturn supermarkets have been prepared to increase the shelf space available to ethical products. “It’s selling so it keeps its space,” he said.

Among the companies to change is Cadbury which in 2009 announced it was to ensure all its Dairy Milk chocolate was bought from Fairtrade sources. Mars with its Maltesers and Nestle with Kitkats have since followed suit, while Tate and Lyle now sells a range of Fairtrade sugar. Harriet Lamb, Executive Director of the Fairtrade Foundation, said: “Despite the economic recession people are continuing to buy Fairtrade as shoppers increasingly expect businesses to be more accountable and fair in dealing with producers in developing countries. “

Paul Monaghan, head of social goals at the Co-op, said: “During the downturn we’ve seen some of the biggest ever Fairtrade conversions, be it in chocolate or sugar, and business is beginning to respond to the challenge to provide consumers with more sustainable products and services such as fish, palm oil and soya.

“Ethical consumers are still a vitally important barometer of change; however, the actions of progressive business are now a significant contributor to sales growth.”

One of the biggest rises was in purchases of Fairtrade food. They rose 36 per cent from £749 million to £1.02bn in 2009-10.

Spending on household-sized green electricity generators such as solar panels and small wind turbines rose 386 per cent from £51m to £248m while sales of eco-cars shot up 128.7 per cent, from £370m to £846m. In 1999, when the Co-op first reported on ethical sales, there were just £4m of green cars sold. Indre

Vaizgelaite, RenewableUK’s Small Wind Systems manager said: “These very positive figures show that more and more people are becoming aware of the benefits of micro-generation, including small wind systems, to generate clean electricity – for themselves, and to feed into the grid to earn money.”

Rapidly expanding ethical sales come against a background of economic gloom in which the UK economy has grown at just 0.5 per cent, according to the most recent figures from the Office for National Statistics, and is forecast to grow only 0.7-0.8 per cent next year.

Fears remain that the economy will stagnate and may even shrink. However, there have also been some big losers, with organic foods suffering particularly badly as shoppers look for cheaper options on their weekly visit to the supermarket. Sales sank 10 per cent in 2010 to be worth £1.53bn, a 23 per cent slump since the organic sector peaked in 2008 with a value of £1.99bn.

Clio Turton, of the Soil Association which oversees organic certification, said of the fall in organic sales: “It’s been a tough year in line with lots of other sectors but the decline is levelling off and we are a bit more confident for this year that it is stabilising. There are positive signs of resilience and recovery.”


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